I’ll admit right now that I’ve never played a Tomb Raider game before. I grew up in an age of Nintendo, so I don’t know much about protagonist Lara (Lare-uh? Lahr-uh? Laura?) Croft’s past romps through strange jungles and crypts. In fact, all I can remember growing up was gawking at the ridiculousness of her character model. So, when I heard that Crystal Dynamics decided to fully reboot the action-adventure franchise, I had no reaction at all.
I didn’t watch a single trailer, so picking up the game was an impulse buy that started with me gawking at the Xbox 360 Tomb Raider-themed controller on the shelf at the store. Regarding the release itself, the clerk told me, “It’s like Arkham Asylum, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed had a baby, and then that baby grew up and then had a fling with Far Cry 3, and that’s basically Tomb Raider.” With a pitch like that, I bought in.
I absolutely had no expectations at all. I booted up the title and switched on my Tomb Raider controller. I’ve seen like half of the original movie adaptation with Angelina Jolie and some gameplay of the old entries in the series to know who Lara is, but from the first few opening scenes, this latest release floored me.
The game mechanics are just as highly polished as the graphics. Rain cascades onto the camera as lightning flashes high above the jungle tops. The dynamic camera cleverly adds tension and pacing to stressful moments in the adventure. And boy, does Lara take a beating. As masochistic as this sounds, the death scenes are just as cringe-worthy and gruesome as the ones in the horror-focused Dead Space. But, that was the kicker for me: the pure grit of Tomb Raider’s island setting. When Crystal Dynamics could’ve taken the easy route, the studio created a story that tries to characterize Lara with more than just a nice set of … weapons.
Speaking of weapons, Tomb Raider has a pretty healthy variety to dispatch enemies with. The bow is the staple option in the game. It’s quiet, and it makes you feel like a complete badass. Other weapons include shotguns, assault rifles, a pistol, and Lara’s signature pickaxe. Crystal Dynamics’ decision to make each weapon upgradable was a great addition to an already addictive title. It keeps you wanting to play and salvage as much as you can from every inch of the map. These role-playing elements aren’t just limited to instruments of harm, however. You can spend skill points — that you earn through experience from kills, scavenging, or overall progression – on upgrades. Each upgrade enhances Lara’s abilities, which can drastically change the way you play. If you focus more on the brawler side of things, your shoves can turn into deadly swings with the pickaxe, for example. This further represents Lara’s toughening in the narrative and gameplay sense.
But no game is without its faults. Call me nitpicky, but the “animal instinct” feature — basically a button that highlights objective waypoints, slight hints, and scavenge-worthy items in an area — seems like the game’s “easy” button. Granted, I don’t have to push the button, but it’s always empowering to figure out what to do next on my own. Animal instinct streamlines the experience for a more casual audience, but I prefer to play my titles on the hardest difficulties with little-to-no handholding.
Considering that this is my only actual gripe with the release, Tomb Raider is fantastic. Kudos to the game-store clerk for recommending it, and I’d hate to say it, but he was absolutely right. Tomb Raider has that pure, unadulterated fun factor that I can’t just quite put my finger on. Lara Croft has evolved from an over-sexualized video game vixen to, well, an ass-kicking game vixen. Sure, we all used to poke fun at her, but the Tomb Raider reboot shatters the stereotypes of female protagonists. This experience made me appreciate impulse, no-expectation purchases.